Thousands of Baltimore County residents have probably paid hundreds of dollars too much for their use of the city's public sewage system — and most are not even aware of it, county officials acknowledge.
More than 200,000 county households get their water from Baltimore City, where an error-prone billing system overcharged its customers in both jurisdictions by at least $4.2 million in the past few years.
But in Baltimore County, the errors are multiplied because of the method sewer charges are calculated for these customers: The county's budget and finance office multiplies the city-issued water bills by three.
And because sewer charges for county residents are wrapped into their annual or semiannual property tax bills — which are often paid out of escrow accounts held by mortgage companies — many homeowners don't even notice the exorbitant charges.
"There is no doubt that if someone has an erroneous bill, given the computation that takes place … someone's charge could indeed be inflated," said Don Mohler, chief of staff to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. County residents may have overpaid by as much as $2.7 million on sewer bills, according to figures released by city public works officials.
Mohler said county officials would promptly correct sewer bill errors in response to customer complaints, but he said they have no way to flag the 17,000 county accounts to which the city is issuing water bill refunds.
"The two billing systems don't talk to one another. They're incompatible," said Mohler. "Someone would have to call once they got [their water bills] straightened out with the city. When folks call, they get pretty prompt service."
Bill and Cindy Molick of Rosedale learned their annual sewer bill was about $1,000 too high only after their mortgage company upped their payments by $300 a month. When Cindy Molick called the lender, an employee alerted her to the high sewer fee.
"Why am I stuck dealing with this when none of it was my fault in the first place?" asked Cindy Molick, 54, a retired city police officer.
Unless their homes are served by wells and septic systems, Baltimore County residents rely on the city's public water and sewage treatment systems. The city issues the bills for water usage, and customers send their payments to the city.
But billing for the sewage treatment system is handled by Baltimore County's budget and finance office. The county triples a household's water bill to determine sewer charges, a calculation based on the assumption that customers who run more water are also sending more water into the sewage treatment system. The sewer charges are then added to residents' property tax bills.
The county turns over to the city the money it collects for sewer bills, about $52 million last year. The city uses the revenue to help pay for maintenance of the wastewater treatment system.
While problems with the city's water billing system surfaced several months ago, Mohler says the county is "in the early stages" of trying to figure out how many residents may have paid too much in sewer charges and whether the overbilling problem continues.
County officials are "trying to work with our city counterparts to analyze the city data to get to the bottom of the magnitude of the problem," Mohler said.
A spokesman for Baltimore's Department of Public Works, which runs the city's water and sewer systems, said the city did alert county officials that 17,000 county customers had been overcharged. City officials also have said they have taken steps to correct problems in the water-billing system.
City auditors first informed city public works officials in November that as many as 65,000 city and county residents may have received inaccurate bills over the past three years.
By the time the audit was made public in late February, public works officials said they had completed their own review and determined that 38,000 customers had been overbilled and were due $4.2 million in refunds. About 17,000 of the 225,000 county water customers — about one in 13 — had been overcharged, they said.
As the Molicks can attest, the city's correction of a water bill does not automatically trigger a reduction in a sewer bill.
The couple's frustrations began when they received a water bill in early 2011 that was nearly $500 more than they had been paying.
"That means I would have had to be sitting on the toilet flushing 12 hours a day, seven days a week," said Cindy Molick. "There's no way I could go to the bathroom that damn much."
Bill Molick, 59, a city police officer, appealed to Baltimore's public works department, which acknowledged the error. He says an official explained that the couple's bill had been incorrectly estimated during a period when the city was routinely estimating bills.
The Molicks received a credit for nearly $500 in March 2011 and thought their problems had been solved. But a few months later, they noticed that their monthly mortgage payment had jumped by $300.
Cindy Molick called the lender, Bank of America, where a representative explained that a high sewer bill was to blame. While the couple's previous annual sewer bills had hovered between $400 and $500, their July 2011 bill was for $1,440.
The high bill wiped out the couple's escrow account, which helped trigger the higher monthly payments.
"I wasn't late. I didn't default. It's all because they estimated my bills," Cindy Molick complained.
Mohler, the county executive's chief of staff, said customers whose city water bills are inaccurate should inform the county so their sewer bills can be adjusted.
"If they rectify the bill with the city, they need to contact the customer service officer in budget and finance," he said. "Then we would analyze it and should be able to adjust it."
County employees are meeting with their city counterparts to determine a more efficient way to detect errors before they become magnified in sewer bills, he said.
But some County Council members say that the county should take a more aggressive approach.
"It's a mess," said Councilman Todd Huff, a Republican who represents northern Baltimore County. He recently helped the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium fight an overly high city water bill and receive a $6,000 credit, he said.
"It's going to wind up being a massive issue," said Huff. "The problem is you're either paying the property tax once a year or twice a year. Do you have to wait a year for a [credit]?"
Council Chairwoman Vicki Almond says she has urged budget officials to cease calculating sewer bills based on unusually high water bills. If a customer receives an unusually high water bill from the city, county officials should bill the household at its usual sewer rate until the issue can be resolved, she said.
"To me, the answer would be to freeze everything where it is," said Almond, a Democrat who represents northwestern Baltimore County. "We can't keep putting this burden on the taxpayers who have no fault in this."
Almond said an alert should be triggered when a county resident gets a high water bill, or when the city reduces a water bill after a customer complains.
"I think there's a total lack of communication between the two jurisdictions, and that's something we'd like to address," said Almond. She said the council met recently with budget and finance officials to discuss the issue.
Several county residents who contacted The Baltimore Sun said that they were not aware of the high sewage bills until their mortgage company informed them that the charges had cleaned out their escrow accounts.
George Mills of Woodstock said he first learned of billing issues at his Reisterstown rental property when he received a call from his mortgage company. Although the company that managed the rental home had successfully fought an inflated water bill, the county used the original water bill to calculate sewage costs.
"It doesn't seem fair that there was a problem with the water bill and I have to pay this huge sewer bill,," said Mills, 50-year-old federal employee, who saw his sewer charges jump by $1,000 in July 2010.
The bill raised his monthly mortgage and county fee payments from $920 to $1,020. The new total exceeds the rent he receives from his tenants.
Although Mills received a credit on his July 2011 sewage bill, his mortgage company continues to charge him at the higher rate.
"I just basically gave up after a while," said Mills.
The city and county have shared a water system for more than 150 years, according to Mohler.
The city gained possession of what are now called Loch Raven and Prettyboy reservoirs in 1853. State legislators granted the county the right to use the city's water mains in 1922, and the Metropolitan District Act, which set up the system still used today, was approved two years later.
Some county leaders say the city's water billing problems are prompting new interest in the creation of an independent water authority.
"I certainly think it might be something that might be considered a little more readily now," said Almond.
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.
What to do
Baltimore County residents with questions about their water bills should contact the Baltimore public works department at 410-396-5398.
If a county resident's water bill is incorrect, the sewer bill likely is wrong, too. Call Baltimore County's public works department at 410-887-2423. Ask for a member of the metro staff.